Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Many-Flavoured Feast

We’ve been in Vermont for just over a week now. The weather is brisk-going-on-cold. We’re living with our friends S & S, their two children E & T, aged 8 and 4 respectively and their two dogs Lobo & Skylar (the reason I’m naming the dogs while leaving the humans only initialed is that I’m guessing that dogs have fewer issues about privacy)(I may be wrong here, of course).

Amongst the varied pleasures of being here is (Amro, take note …) the food. S, who is a passionate believer in food-as-medicine-and-as-joy cooks only with organic ingredients, sometimes plucked from her own herb garden or vegetable beds. An excellent meal we had the other day is worth mentioning – but I should stress that it’s been one of many. I am singling it out for special mention only because I happened to make a note of the recipe (but I didn’t write it down so if I have mis-remembered it when I reproduce it here, that will only mean that some of you will have to try it out, realize something has gone wrong and then write furious comments to me, cursing my poor recall) – Star Pasta with Mussels in Scampi Sauce. You begin (of course) with the Mussels. Four tablespoons of butter, melted with olive oil – enough to just cover the bottom of a medium-sized pan – into which you add the mussels – S used canned baby mussels, three tins of about 400 gms each, including the water. She added a fistful of fresh-plucked chives, three medium-sized heads of garlic (peeled and crushed) and a cup or two of white wine and maybe three-quarter cup of lemon juice. Add salt to taste (though the brine in which the mussels are canned provides quite a bit of flavour). Cook for about 15 minutes and voilĂ . It is done and delicious.

The Star Pasta was something I’ve not had before. It’s just pasta, like any other, but shaped into TINY little stars – looked at edge-on, a cooked star looks exactly like a grain of rice – and when served, looks like a mound of grains except that they’re NOT grains. For some reason, the starry character of the pasta enters the mind and imagination of the diner – well, this diner, anyway -– so that the act of eating becomes quite ravishingly twinkly. I cannot describe it any other way! T in particular, caught quite a number of stars in her hair, on her elbows and on her cheek and whereas spaghetti similarly distributed about her person would have looked ridiculous, the stars looked frankly delightful.

Well! That gives you an idea of the kind of stay this is turning out to be. Marked by unusual thrills – which aren’t really thrills so much as daily life experienced through the prism of being an outsider to them. Another example: down the road from the house, there’s someone who maintains an emu farm. There are at least 12 or 15 of the creatures prancing around their out-door enclosure. They are about as tall as I am (when they stretch up) – i.e., five foot five – and extremely curious. As soon as they catch sight of someone walking by they trot towards the fence with a jerky-hoppy motion, their brilliant gamboge eyes glittering, their dark beaks closed and their long necks coiling this way and that, snake-like. They are covered with iron-grey feathers which look more like a pelt of long, stringy fur and where it thins out a bit on their throats, the skin shows beneath it, coloured a delicate shade of cornflower blue. From within those serpentine necks and despite the closed beaks, there comes an eldritch BONG! sound … Quite remarkable.

It’s fairly cold, even though it’s the end of April – and just in case you’re inclined to think I might be exaggerating let me inform you that yesterday afternoon, the mild rain had the cheek to turn into snow!! Not very serious snow, to be sure – it did not so much as remain on the ground – but it certainly turned the air into a fine blade, with the wind using one’s nose as its whet-stone.
This morning the puddles of rain that remained from the day before had frozen over, then cracked into muddy shards that looked exactly as if someone had broken a plastic dish and then thrown the pieces carelessly out into the yard.

I am pleased to say that, despite the many distractions, I have even managed to do a bit of reading. Over the weekend, I demolished a book called NOT BUYING IT, by Judith Levine. It’s definitely a must-read item even for someone like me – i.e, someone who doesn’t especially like to shop. The author has published four books besides being a free-lance journalist. She and her partner Paul live half the year in New York and half the year in Vermont (yes … there IS a connection … all will be revealed soon).

As she explains in the preamble to the book, it was while struggling to complete her Christmas shopping in late 2003 that she was suddenly overcome with disgust at the sheer overwhelming chaos caused by Homo Consumerensis. Instead of merely brushing aside her sense of unease at the volume and urgency of the shopping frenzy in which she and her fellow shoppers were wallowing, she chose to do something about it – by deciding to write a book about one entire year during which she refuses to spend money.

In the hands of a less honest, determined and conscientious author this might have been a dreary compilation of temptations resisted or obsessions revealed. Instead, it goes from the early days of 2004, during which Levine experiences real pangs of withdrawal from an activity she knew she enjoyed but had never before considered especially obsessive, to a greater and deeper awareness about the philosophy of runaway consumption that she and others like her are immersed within; about the impact upon the planet of such an attitude; about the echoes she sees in it, in the political realities of the US, particularly in the days just before and then following George W. Bush’s election victory at year end.

By the time her year of denial has come to an end, she is neither especially relieved to know that the “ordeal” is over nor does she truly regard it as an ordeal, now that it is almost behind her. She has learnt to appreciate economies that she hadn’t seen the value of before and she has discovered the painful bald spots appearing in the once healthy and vigorous public domain of America – the libraries that are pitifully over-used and under-funded, the public services that are running down.

During her stay in Vermont, she and Paul become involved in a protest against a proposal to build an unsightly cell-phone tower not far from where our hosts/friends S & S live. They had become intimately involved in the protest. Believing as they do in the urgent need to re-think economic priorities with ecological sanity and the planet’s best interests in view, they were of course passionately opposed to the cell-tower. Levine refers to them in her book – which is of course a powerful incentive to read the book for a guest living in their house! – and by the end of the year, the tower, though sanctioned, is down-sized so that it is less of an eye-sore. It has not yet been built (it may never be) and so, to this day, we do not have cell-phone reception here. But the phones work perfectly well, and so does the Internet and in all truth, without traffic jams to be stuck in, or a social round to maintain, the lack of cell-phones hardly matters AT ALL. And that’s from me, a gadget-lover and SMS-fiend.

In a sense Levine’s book formed an interesting – might I go so far as to say piquant? – counterpoint to the book I had JUST finished reading, called Julie & Julia (I mentioned it in my previous post but didn’t get around to posting a link) which was, by contrast, entirely about consuming – food, that is, of the richest and most gourmet kind. Julie Powell (the author of that book) also created a year-long programme for herself and wrote a book around it and became something of a celebrity too – though it is unclear whether she will go on to sustain her place in the sun with more books. It’s silly, of course, to compare the books, because they really have very little in common and would probably not be mentioned in the same context except for the fact that I read them one after the other. Still – since I DID do that – it interested me to hear echoes from one book to the next. The powerful allure of food and eating in the first book, the way that it connects so many people to the thirty-year-old author’s personal aim of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking and the powerful siren-song of the shopping plaza sounding in the ears of the second author, as she struggles to resist the urge to buy herself new clothes or see the latest films or buy an unnecessary trinket as a present for her niece upon her Graduation Day from University.

If it isn't already obvious, I strongly recommend both books. Dunno if they're easy to find/order in Delhirium, but I expect The Bookshop, Jorbagh and also Strand Bookshop in Bombay would be able to order them.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Arrived and on the move!

So ... my recommendation for THIS year is AIR FRANCE. We boarded our flight in Delhirium at 1.00 a.m. and were greeted at the aircraft's entrance by airhostesses wishing us "Bon Soir Madame/M'sieur!" -- it was a great start for any Francophile -- and the rest of the flight confirmed that first impression. Yep. By the end of it, E and I were chattering away in French, like a pair of parrots that have been taught a series of stock phrases, and are eager to try them all out!! I don't know what it is about the french language, but being immersed in it makes the immersee feel supercool, elegant, sophisticated, pleasantly perfumed and even (at a stretch) slender.

The result of this was that we wafted out at Boston's Logan airport in a haze of gaulic good-humour, buoyed up by TOTALLY OUTSTANDING FOOD (are you reading this, Amro?) -- not too much, not too little, but fresh and tasty and even the trays weren't too fussy or the little packets impossibly difficult to break into. Red wine both meals, and a nice, smooth dry one it was. There was a scheduled six hour wait at Paris' Charles de Gaulle and that was a bore, but the flight after it was just as good as the one that preceded it so ... like I said, we arrived in very good humour. We were out in the mild spring sunshine within minutes -- literally, I think it took about 20 minutes from the time we left the aircraft -- and that even includes the surreal 15 minute wait between the aircraft and the interior of the Immigration Hall, with all 300+ passengers backed up in one long, bewildered line in front of a locked glass door, coz SOMEBODY forgot to open it and let us in. My niece's partner L collected us in his car and took us to my niece D's sweet, pretty and pleasant-scented apartment in Arlington.

And yes, Amro, we had a GREAT dinner, cooked by my niece, of angel-hair pasta and excellent salmon. Delicately herbed and very tasty. MMMmmm.

I am not going to extend this much longer coz I actually have a life that I need to get back to right about ... NOW. But before I go, I need to say a word about two books I've been reading: one is Irwin Allen Sealy's RED -- which I found so charming, unusual and mind-tickling that I gave it away to D before I'd finished reading it, so keen was I to share it with someone else! More about it in my next post. And the second book is one that I read about in Zig's post about the BLOOKER awards -- it's called JULIE & JULIA by Julie Powell and I'm enjoying it thoroughly. I would've preferred it to have included every single recipe that the author talks about, but even without them it IS, as the backcover blurb promises, a delicious read. All about the joys of cooking -- something I know nothing about, but am constantly hoping to just acquire someday without REALLY TRYING. (If you're reading this, Hurree, I hope you're feeling pleasantly jealous!! I promise to lend you my copy if you haven't got your own by the time I return ... chucklechuckle)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Preparing to Make the Jump to Light-Speed

So -- yes -- once again, we're gathering up our forces to make the Jump. It's an odd feeling, EVERY SINGLE TIME. I never reallyreallyreally believe I am going to make it through all the tiresome hoops and rings of fire that lie between me and the disembark-destination. I always assume that there'll be trolls and were-tramps all along the way, whose only aim in life is prevent me from achieving my goals.

At this moment, I am three-quarters-packed, not yet feeling the panic of wondering what vital items I have left out but already sensing the dwindling of space and time as the hour approaches. *sigh*

More later ...

Monday, April 03, 2006

Young Iraqi Ballerinas

This is going to be a slow rambling post about ... well, to begin with, this photograph. It appeared in the Asian Age, Sunday April 2nd 2006 on page 16 "Newsmakers" of the DELHI AGE section. It's an AFP photograph but has no other captions or credits and when I searched for it online couldn't locate it on the AFP site. So ... here it is, scanned from my newspaper in all its grainy glory.

I found myself gazing at it several times all through the day. I don't know whether your screen rez allows you to see the painterly texture of the image, the wonderful Degas flavour of it, echoed in the painting of a ballerina displayed on the back wall of the stage (I don't think it is a Degas, but it has the correct mood to be one). The colours, the expressions on the faces of the little girls, the curious suspension of life and reality beautifully symbolized by the pair of dancers behind the row of girls in front, of a slightly older ballerina supported on the arms of a male dancer, whom we see only from the waist down. She is all pastel and pink, her cruelly dainty shoes -- can't you just feel the tender toes cramped and bleeding within the tiny wooden cage of that unnatural footwear! -- raised in the air, while he ... well ... he's just the muscle in the picture and yet, in his uniqueness, he stands out. We don't see his face, yet we can guess that he is strangely handsome, that he lives a life that most young men only dream of, immersed up to his bobbing Adam's apple in acres of virginal semi-clad female flesh.

It is hard to know what story or moment is being depicted here. What exactly is the meaning of those tender, underdeveloped limbs, just one for each of the young girls, raised up at that ungainly angle? Are they in the midst of a dance movement or was the photograph posed, frozen for the camera? There is something so thrillingly familiar about the expressions on those very young faces -- the combination of boredom and solemn engagement, the prim sweetness of the wreaths around the heads, the flushed pink skin, the glistening eyes, the half-opened mouths. There is, about the picture, a hushed breathlessness, just as these girls' lives, one senses, are also hushed, breathless, half-open, paused: until ... time's little switches get turned on one by one; they blossom and grow full; the weight of womanly Otherness transforms them; that sweetness is gone -- replaced with other flavours, for sure --but never again that intense, that pure, that unconscious sweetness.

It is very odd for me to have these thoughts.

I have seen lots of pictures of ballerinas before; one of my schools offered ballet as an option and therefore I saw many versions of these young dancers performing in real life, and can still see them in my memory. I used to get Girls Own annuals with endless photo essays of ballerinas and their costumes, hopes, tears, triumphs. Yet none of these remembered pictures evoked in me the confused thoughts that this picture did.

Is it because I know that the girls are Iraqi and that their performance takes place against the backdrop of the war that has engulfed their world? Here's what the text says: Life goes on: Young Iraqi ballerinas perform on a Baghdad stage on Saturday during the opening ceremenony of the First Festival of Child Theatre in Iraq. The 11-day Festival started despite the death of two actors who were to perform in one of the plays in the festival. Their bodies, riddled with bullets were found last week in the war-torn Iraqi capital. The festival is dedicated to Iraqi children and aims to revive happiness among the children, who witness daily bloodshed in their country. (AFP)

On the one hand, I feel what (perhaps) the festival organizers would like everyone to feel -- that it is a remarkable achievement to be able to produce a full-fledged ballet in a country that has seen the kind of upheaval that has been the stuff of front page news for ... oh ... three years already? On the other hand, I feel it is bizarre and inappropriate for little girls to be paraded in this way for all the world to gawp at. I feel quite guilty harbouring such thoughts. But there you are: with one part of my mind, I feel that this kind of display of little girls is exactly what leads, through sad and twisted pathways, into crimes against girls and women.

With these thoughts still twitching and fidgeting in the back of my mind, today, I accessed this link sent to me by Zigzackly. It's a must-read blog-post and it makes reference to two very shocking incidents -- one that occurred in Vietnam, at My Lai, and another that occurred out of media view, to the blogger herself.

In case it seems as if I'm leading up to a grand general theory -- I am going to disappoint you -- coz NO, I'm not. I just wanted to present two very different images of reality, and leave you with the task of working out how we manage to live with both of them side by side(-- okay, not physically, but certainly juxtaposed through the magic of media) in the same world.

And that's all for today.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

More Linx

It must be a sign of galloping senility that I find this funny ... (CAUTION: sound file alert -- if there are children/co-workers/sane people in the room with you, do NOT click)(if there are cats, go right ahead).